Acme Thunderer whistle

The Specialist Sports Whistle

The first whistle designed for referees, The Acme Thunderer, celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2009. It is still made and is still in worldwide use across many sports.

In the early days of football (soccer) in England players were considered gentlemen and would call their own fouls. As the game became more competitive and ultimately professional, officials used a handkerchief to indicate fouls but of course these are not easily spotted in the heat of play. Indeed referees still use flags thrown on the field of play in American football to show fouls.

The First Use of Whistle by a Referee

It is frequently suggested that the first use of a whistle by a referee was in 1878 in a game between Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Norfolk. However the last time those two teams met was in 1874. Nevertheless the Nottingham Forest account book of 1872 apparently recorded the purchase of an “umpire’s whistle” and in 1928 an article by R M Ruck’s about his playing days in the early 1870s referred to the use of a whistle by umpires to indicate an infringement.

Acme Whistles, Made in Birmingham

In 1868 Joseph Hudson, a toolmaker, had started making whistles in Birmingham and in 1883 invented a whistle for policemen. It was in response to an advertisement from the Metropolitan Police who were looking for a more effective replacement for the rattle then in use for communication. Hudson’s police whistle could be used hands-free and the sound carried for over a mile.

In 1884 Hudson introduced the Acme Thunderer specifically for football referees but it is now widely used by coaches and officials in many sports. It was the now classic barrel-shaped pea whistle with an extended mouth piece and a slot. All were brass bodied as it had the right characteristics that makes brass popular for wind instruments. However many are plated with nickel or chromium so have a silver colour. It is now made in many sizes and the plastic bodied versions are available in a range of colours.

A version, still available, was used for signalling by the crew of the Titanic on its ill-fated maiden voyage.

Continuously Available and in Top-level Use for Over a Century

The Acme Thunderer has been continuously available for 125 years and is still used at the all levels of sport and for other purposes. Over the years there have been many variations and it is now available as both a traditional plated brass whistle, in plastic versions and in various shapes and sizes. Over the 125 years more than 200 million Acme Thunderers have been sold and the number continues to grow. It is still made in England by Acme Whistles Ltd in Great Barr, Birmingham who export their whistles worldwide.

A British Design Classic

Although there are many models of the Thunderer; the essentially original version is available (for around £6 or $10) and that it is still regarded as the standard by which other whistles are judged is a testament to the quality of Joseph Hudson’s original design. It has to be considered one of the most under-acknowledged design classics. See:


First shown on Suite101


Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.